New guidelines devised by University of Stirling and University of Bath experts have been launched to provide meaningful support to people who have lost a relative or friend to alcohol or drugs.
They are based on findings from a three-year ESRC-funded research project, which suggests those left bereaved after a drug or alcohol related death often receive poor, unkind or stigmatising responses which can exacerbate their grief.
Professor Linda Bauld, and Research Fellows Jennifer McKell and Allison Ford, from Stirling’s Institute for Social Marketing were involved in the study.
Professor Linda Bauld said: “Our findings are drawn from interviews with family members in England and Scotland but are likely to have relevance across the UK. There is much more that can be done to support bereaved family members and consider their needs rather than focus on the stigma that drug and alcohol use can carry.
“Drinking and drug use is something that cuts across all sections of society. These guidelines are relevant for a diverse range of organisations and we hope they can now be tested in practice.”
In the largest known qualitative research sample of its kind, 106 bereaved adults were interviewed with further focus groups for practitioners. While some bereaved people reported positive experiences, the study identified much poor practice resulting from practitioners not understanding this kind of death and the issues involved.
It found such bereavements can typically be complicated by the stress of living with the person's substance use prior to the death; the difficult circumstances surrounding the death; a belief the death was premature and could have been prevented, and feelings of guilt in not having being able to intervene.
The researchers also highlight how bereaved people can be daunted by the myriad of different individuals and organisations they encounter after the death; steps to better cross-agency working are recommended.
In other cases where an individual has died in unusual circumstances, families may be offered a family liaison officer or victim support, but there is no such single point of support for people left bereaved through alcohol or drugs; something the researchers suggest could be considered.
The new guidelines have been developed by a working group of practitioners, including drug and alcohol service providers, the police, court, GPs and even a funeral director. The authors hope they will now be rolled out across support services.
Lead researcher, Dr Christine Valentine from the University of Bath’s Department of Social & Policy Sciences, said: “The unique combination of circumstances surrounding the death of somebody from alcohol or drug use can produce particularly severe bereavements. The fact that many of us feel uncomfortable or unsure about how to respond to these bereaved people, how we talk about these deaths and the limited support offered, are all symptomatic of the fact that, so far, this group, though sizeable, remains hidden and neglected by research, policy and practice.
“Our research has found that, while poor responses from services adds to their distress, a kinder and more compassionate approach can make a real difference. Our hope is that these Guidelines - developed for practitioners by practitioners - will provide a much needed blueprint for how services can respond to these bereaved people.”
According to Alcohol Concern, alcohol-related deaths have increased by nearly 20 per cent in the past 10 years. In 2012, there were nearly 6,490 alcohol-related deaths. According to the National Records of Scotland, there were 526 drug related deaths registered in Scotland in 2013. The latest ONS figures highlight that 2,955 drug-related deaths were registered in 2013 for England and Wales.